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What Happens When a Christian Sins?

By Jonathan Shriver

"After all, it’s accepted as a fact of life in society today."

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.

It came from a young man who claimed to be a Christian, but who was struggling with a particular sin at the time.

"I’m not perfect. God doesn’t expect me to get it right every time."

What was I to say? Perhaps, "God does expect you to live a blameless life" and fall into legalism? Or was I to answer, "God knows you’ll sin in fact he expects you to and it doesn’t really bother him" and hand him a virtual ‘license to sin’?

The same questions bothered the early Christians. In fact the first of these two extremes brought such a response from the apostle Paul as to provoke him to write in no uncertain terms:

*You foolish Galatians! Who had bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. . . . Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort? (Galatians 3:1, 3)

These believers had trusted in the Lord Jesus for their eternal salvation, yet held to the law-principle a performance-based system—for the daily "maintenance" of their Christianity.

Paul is clear that the law could not save from sin, nor could it make a person righteous in God’s sight. We only need to go as far as the first three chapters of Romans to see the fact of our total inability to do anything to please God. In Romans 7 the apostle confronts the sinful nature and points to the source of sin: the law! He tells us that, apart from the law, he would not have known what sin was. It is God’s law that showed sin for what it really was, and presented us with the certainty that we could never in ourselves live up to its perfect standard. Praise God for his gracious provision!

*For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in sinful man in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us who do not live according to the sinful nature, but according to the Spirit. (Romans 8:3-4)

To the Galatians, Paul wasn’t pulling any punches. He said it as it was and called them what they were: "You foolish people! What spell are you under? Surely common sense would tell you the Christian life can only be lived on a spiritual and supernatural level. You can’t possibly be serious! Succeed by your own efforts? No way!" Is what I’m saying getting through to you yet? Good.

Let’s take a look at the other extreme.

*Shall we go on sinning that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? (Romans 6:1-2)

Paul is not saying it’s impossible for believers to sin. He’s saying it is stupid for them to sin. What does the prison of sin have that you desire as a new creation? Do you miss the guilt? Are you homesick for the lies? Do you enjoy being angry and vengeful?

You would have to be out of your mind to miss the "old" self.

To return to sin after having been awakened from sin, death and dread does not make sense, but it’s not impossible for the Christian. A believer can return to the pit "from whence he was digged"—but why would he want to?

Some take this verse to be a license to sin . . . and those who are hanging on to the last threads of sin’s filthy rags perhaps think that the grass is greener on the other side of the fence.

The Russian monk Rasputin taught that we should sin, and do so as often as we can, so God’s grace may abound in our lives. This license to do whatever you wish may sound good to the casual Christian, but fails to take into account the grace of God reigning in the life.

Questioning the Roman saints, Paul continues:

*Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. (verses 3-4)

As I heard one hillbilly preacher once say, "Y’all cain’t see no water here ‘tall!" . . . and he was right! These verses do not mention water in any shape or form, yet are used time and again to validate one or another theory on water baptism. Rather, the baptism Paul speaks of here is the one he writes about to the Corinthians.

*For we were all baptised by one Spirit into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. (1 Corinthians 12:13)

This is the complete identification (a supernatural act of God) that unites us with Christ in his death, burial, and resurrection. Therefore, when God sees you, and me, he does not see our empty efforts but Christ’s full payment for our sin. It is as if it were you—or me—hanging on his cross. So complete is our identification with him.

We find ourselves in a self-caused quagmire if we embrace either extreme. If we say we must do good deeds, adding them to God’s grace as a requirement, we are in effect saying, "God, I don’t need you. I’ve got this thing under control. I can make it on my own."

The problem is, we most often can’t.

*Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God. (Romans 8:8)

It is only by faith that we can receive the gift of God called Salvation. And it is only by that same faith in Christ that we can live a life pleasing to God.

On the other hand we have the lawless one who continues sinning, choosing to satisfy his own "natural" cravings, believing God’s grace will take care of the bill at the end of the party.

The problem here is not that God’s grace won’t pick up the tab, but that the lifestyle this young man has chosen for himself is not fulfilling God’s purpose for him. Yes, he will be saved on the final day (if he has truly trusted Christ for his salvation), but will lose everything he hoped to gain by his self-gratification. Of course, there are those who will say that he was never saved at all since his life’s fruits do not show his newness of life. Rather than judge a matter before its time, I will leave that decision to God who knows what is in his heart.

On one hand we have legalism, and on the other license. Neither one is an appropriate response to the sin problem. So where is the answer?

John addresses this issue in the second chapter of his first letter:

*My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. . . .

"Hold on! Wait just a minute! Me, not sin? That’s impossible. I could never attain that standard!"

You’re right. Trying to attain that standard only makes us realise our incapacity to reach perfection. We are never good enough. Those who attempt this approach will find themselves entombed in a miserable existence of sin-consciousness and the guilt, shame, and insecurity it brings. For these heart-aching, guilt-ridden, shame-covered prodigal children of God, the elderly apostle of Christ continues by lighting a candle of hope:

*But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins. . . . (1 John 2:1-2)

The courtroom is packed for the trial. The prosecutor has a water-tight case against you. Not only does he have witnesses who saw you in the act, but he has your own confession of guilt. There is no way on earth the Judge could justly hand down any other verdict but "Guilty as charged."

But this court is not on earth; it is in heaven.

Enter the Defense. He has no volumes of evidence to present on your behalf. He has no witnesses to affirm your innocence. All he has is scars—in his hands and in his feet—scars from a Roman cross where he took the blame for your sin, and paid your penalty in full. This is all the evidence he needs to present to the Judge.

Because of Christ’s substitutionary death for us, we are pardoned. It is not because we were something, but that our God was gracious. It is not because we were lovely, but that our God loved us and bestowed his grace on us. Grace does not boast in me and say, "What a good person I am." Rather, it glories in Christ, and declares, "What a great God I have!"

As certain as death and taxes, we will sin. The fact of sin is not the issue here. The provision God has already made on our behalf is the essence of his entire revelation to us: Christ has become our righteousness! He has replaced our filthy rags for his royal robe. He has removed the shackles that bound us in slavery to sin and replaced them with his princely ring of grace.

Between the two extremes—license and law—we have a wonderful position in Christ. We have been made free from the law’s demands. These were met by Christ. And because of his new life that we share, we have been set free from slavery to sin. We are not obligated to it’s demands any longer. The prison doors have been opened and we walk outside—free at last! And we ain’t goin’ back—no way!

But we will sin. We are human beings with a built-in proneness to wrong. And this is where the grace of God really works in our life. The blood of Christ not only saved us once, but continues to work its marvelous work every day of our life.

It’s not that we are to come to God begging for his blood to be applied to our sin at every occurrence. God has already pardoned us once for all time. Our sins—past, present, and future—have been forgiven through the same application of Christ’s blood. We are forever free from the penalty and power of sin.

But we still experience the presence of sin every day.

The good news is we don’t need to be caught in its grasp.

I have met Christians who have been so for many years who are still in a vicious cycle of sin, repentance, commitment to godly living, sin . . . with no end in sight. What they fail to see is the once-for-all nature of God’s forgiveness.

What does Paul say?

*If God is for us, who can be against us? . . . Who shall bring any charge against those that God has chosen? . . . Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? . . . (Romans 8:31, 33, 35)

These are not questions that need an answer. The answer is assumed, and stands as a loud "NOBODY!" "NOTHING!" "NEVER!"

*For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39)

This is grace!

Regardless of what anyone can do to me—or anything I could ever do to myself—I cannot be separated from the hold God’s grace has on me.

I am free.

But I can still sin. And if I do, I must be honest with God and myself, and admit my sin to him. This is called confession. It means "to agree with." This is acknowledging, "I have sinned." It is not seeking forgiveness, but a restored relationship.

My three-year-old, Emily, can be a beautiful example of goodness and love. Yet I am certain that sometime in the next day or so, Vicki and I will see evidence that she is related to Adam. She will show us she is a sinner.

While I love her so much, I do not like the wrong things she can do. There are times when her naughty deeds prevent me from relating to her on an intimate and loving level as a father and daughter should. When she offends me, I forgive her. She doesn’t even need to ask "Will you?" I love her and extend forgiveness before she even asks. But if the relationship is to be restored and we are to have the closeness of a father and his precious little girl, then she will need to come to me and say, "Daddy (or ‘D-a-a-a-d,’ as she lately refers to me!), I’m sorry for …………….; will you forgive me?"

I will assure her I already have forgiven her for what she did, I will hold her close, and reassure her of my love for her and her special place in my heart.

Sometimes I can do good things that amaze even myself (and even in this admission I can see shades of pride surfacing!). But more often than not, I will do something really stupid. I will be boastful. I will retaliate in anger. I will be insensitive to my wife’s needs. I will aggravate my kids. I will sin.

When I sin, I build a barrier between myself and my Father. He loves me, but he is grieved when I do wrong. I could ignore the feelings of guilt I have inside of me. I could rebel against the conviction of the Holy Spirit in my heart. I could even rationalise my sin away and make myself believe I’m not so bad. "After all, I’m not perfect. God doesn’t expect me to get it right every time."

But even while I speak, in my own heart I see that unless I take the first step and confess my sin to the Father, the relationship remains at a distance. I cannot expect to come to him in intimate encounters and enjoy his Word as he opens it to me.

I must come to him, as my daughter does to me, and say, "My Father, I have sinned. Please forgive me." And I know beyond any doubt, as he holds me close to himself, that he already has forgiven me . . . and he reassures me that I, as his own son, have a special place in his heart.

Once again, his grace is extended. Once again, I realise that I am forever his. Nothing can separate me from his love.

Society’s standards may shift with the passing of time. What is called "acceptable behaviour" today may be "inappropriate" tomorrow. Compromise is the key word in the modern man’s language. But my life is not resting on such a shaky foundation. It rests on the truth of God’s Word and in the merits of Christ. I enjoy the blessings of his grace and bask—yes, I revel—in his great love for me! What a God, what a Father, what Grace!

*Scripture quotations taken from The Holy Bible:New International Version, ©1978, 1984 International Bible Society. Used by permission.

©1997, Grace Educational Ministries, Inc. P. O. Box 61, Smithfield, S.A., Australia, 5114. This article may be produced in its entirety provided that it is for free distribution without cost to the reader, and provided that it is reproduced in its entirety with copyright notice intact.

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